After watching a particularly inept performance one night by NBA referees. Bill Russell shook his head in disguest.

"Letting those two handle a game of this quality." he said. stroking his beard and not trying to hide the gleam in his eyes, "is like letting a 7-year-old drive a Rolls-Royee."

Then he giggled in his unique high-pitched tone. But the league didn't think his remarks so humorous. He was fined $500, at the time one of the largest penalties in pro basketball history.

Russell isn't coaching anymore in the league and his friends say he should be thankful, considering how the officiating has slipped even since he left the Seattle helm two years ago.

"I've given up complaining." said Bullet Coach Dick Motta. "I've mellowed. **i guess. It hasn't done any good and I just don't need the problems any more.

"I am encouraged by the three-official concept and I want it to work, desperately. It's a step in the right direction. It could be the light at the end of the basket."

But others are not encouraged. One long time NBA executive says that, if anything, the caliber of officiating in the league "has gotten worse from a few years back."

"This is the one league that I see where there is no breeding ground for refs. You have the greatest players in the world who have groomed their talents for years and then you are asking people who aren't qualified to officiate.

"You have to remember how powerful these refs are. They can make or break you. I think they probably will work on (Detroit coach) Dick Vitale next and show him he can't rant wand rave. You have no way to get back at them."

That was the gist of Dave Cowens' argument after the Celtics had lost recently to Washington, mainly because three technical fouls were called against Boston in the final two minutes.

"You don't have any recourse," Cowens said."There are no checks and balance when they make a bad call."

Cowens has particular interest in the caliber of officiating. Last year, he sent a questionnaire to the players containing 100 queries regarding the conduct and procedure of referees. From the report, the NBA Players Association developed criteria to rate officials, but the league did nothing with the report.

Larry Fleisher, head of the Players Association, said in a recent interview that NBA officiating "is lousy. The refs have a big responsibility. They can greatly affect the outcome of many games."

The prevailing NBA view, reflected by Commissioner Lawrence O'Brien, is that the league has the best referees in basketball. But Washington Bullet players, for example, could name no more than five or six current officials as being really competent: the rest. the players said, varied from okay to incompetent.

Even Norm Drucker, league supervisor of officials, doesn't deny that the quality of referees might be down this season mainly because the league had to add 14 newcomers to fill out the three-man crews.

"We never brought in more than one or two new people before." he said recently in New Orleans. "There is no way you can get enough training ahead of time to make sure all of the new people will fit in."

The lack of a training system for future officials always has been a glaring NBA weakness. Drucker says he doesn't believe college referees can make good pro referees. so the NBA looks to summer leagues. high schools and amateur basketball for replacements.

"The college guy is too ingrained in his kind of calls." Drucker said. "There is a substantial difference between college and pro calls. Every good college ref we have brought in has not been a good pro ref."

Now. Drucker notes, the NBA has a working arrangement with the Continental and Western leagues to employ prospective officials with the NBA helping support salaries through grants.

"It's something we should be doing." Drucker said. "I can watch them and see who is good and who needs work. We constantly need new people and this way, we have a place to find them."

But until the feeder system begins reaping dividends. the NBA has to rely on its current crop of officials, many of whom. according to Bullet forward Bob Dandridge. engage in too much direct verbal conversation with players on the court.

"Too many of them get involved in players' personalities." he continued. "They've already got a jethal weapon, the technical. And if they want to really get nasty. they can give you two and toss you out.

"But then they carry in further and will carry on a running conversation for two or three minutes. You don't need it."

Dandridge, who is in his 10th year, says he especially has noticed how "some guys with just one year's experience are walking around like they think they are lead officals."

"Players have put in eight or nine years to gain respect but these refs think they should be on top after one. They haven't paid their dues like we have.

"The ones who aren't secure, guys like Tommy Nunez or Lee Jones. tend to be more emotional. There isn't as much stability or consistency in their calls."

Consistency emerges as the players' battle cry in their continual jousting with the refs. They would at least like officials, whether good or bad, to call everything the same everytime.

"Otherwise." said Bullet guard Tom Henderson. "you never know what is going to happen from night to night. One night you can touch a guy, the next night you can't. And there are too many whistles. I don't think the people want to pay money to see these guys blow their whistles out there."

One NBA coach told Motta that he had a list of referees that he knew were going to call a bad game against him every time they walked out on the court.

"You have to remember what kind of game this is. Everyone is in close contact and you see the same personslities year in and year out. I'm sure there are refs who dread officiating games I'm involved in," the coach said.

What befuddles both players and coaches is how some officials survive. A weak player usually is cut quickly but the league has carried poor referees for years, apparently hoping, in the words of one player. "that the guy will somehow improve overnight.

"Some of these guys have been hbad from day one and they are still bad and they are still in the league. If they get dropped. they sue. Now they have a pension and a contract and you can tell there is a change in their attitude. They know they are going to be around after we are gone and they let us know it."

Even veterans like Jake O'Donnell. one of the five best officials in the league, are not exempt from the sometimes nonchalant approach NBA refs take.

Near the end of a tight game between the Bullets and New Orleans this season, a member of O'Donnell's crew made a highly disputed call in favor of Washington.

Moments later. O'Donnell ran past the Bullet bench. "I don't want to hear any more complaints the rest of the game from you guys," he said with a big smile on his face. "You just got the biggest break of your life. That was an awful call." CAPTION: Picture 1 through 6, no caption, Photos by Richard Darcey. Gerald Martineau-The Washington Post and UPI